soylentgreen23

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Japan: A Reinterpretation

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I clearly and dearly miss Japan. I spent a short six months there in 2002 working as an English teacher, but at the time I knew nothing of teaching, nothing of salesmanship, and certainly nothing of being an adventurer. I left under a cloud and it has taken me years to emerge from its shadow.I have read numerous books on Japan - Alex Kerr's marvellous 'Lost Japan' and 'Dogs and Demons', 'Looking for the Lost' by Alan Booth, 'The Blue-Eyed Salaryman' by 'Niall Murtagh', as well as a host of novels by Japanese, the best of which has surely been 'The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea' by Yukio Mishima. So I am certainly no beginner to the field.That said, I learnt a tremendous lot from Patrick Smith's fine work, and a lot of it has helped me to see the Japanese from a more informed perspective - for example, the difference between the way the truth is presented and the reality underneath helps to understand the scandal of the reporter recently subjected to inhumane treatment at Narita - though not to condone it in any way.There is too much to summarise, but the crux of Smith's work concerns two aspects - the continued challenge for the Japanese to find themselves, their private selves, not their social selves; and for the Japanese to finally (though this was written before the end of the millennium) shake off their American shackles.The sense of privacy and individuality, and the way that the Japanese suffer from not having either, is detailed at length; the aspect of American interference was, frankly, new to me, and reading it I got the real sense of a tragedy being unfolded before me for the first time in any of the books that I've read.After the war, when Japan at last surrendered, the Americans came in and occupied the country. For the first year at least they opened the country up to the first stirrings of democracy, and the sense of excitement was palpable. No more martial leadership, no more serving the country instead of oneself. But then the Cold War stretched in its icy fingers and the American government suddenly felt worried by their new colony. Would the Japanese go the right way, or would they go Left? Or even go neither, and sit on the fence? Best not to take the chance; so the 'reverse course' was taken, removing the new and reinstalling the old, putting back in place a gang of old war criminals who nonetheless were anti-commie. Japan is still recovering from this debacle, and it is such a shame when one considers the country it could have grown into over the last fifty years.
Fifth Business

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There is so much to admire about this book, that I honestly don't know where to start.Generally, I tend not to like stories that start with the childhood of the main character and proceed linearly on through their life. I don't know why this is - perhaps it's because there is an inherent contradiction of the writer giving us the deepest, most philosophical thoughts and presenting them as originally the child's. Davies sidesteps this thorny issue magnificently by making a direct admission of this, that everything he recalls is tinged with his knowledge of the world as an educated adult, and that it is unreasonably to say that the thoughts he reports are authentic.The story follows the life of his main character, who is neither hero, nor heroine, nor confidante, nor villain. In other words, he is, in the language of the theatre, fifth-business, and it is this central idea that is felt through the novel: here is a man who has forever been a spectator in life, who has never managed to break free of the path that history has taken him down. I can really relate to this myself, although I am quite content sitting by the side of the road, watching the world go by and taking notes. Perhaps, when my own role in life is presented to me, I shall feel compelled to do something about it like the narrator of our story, but until that happens, I will content myself with literature, hoping forever to find books as good as this one.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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There are certain kinds of books that I love:1. Books that entertain2. Books that use the language in an interesting way3. Books that teach me something I didn't know4. Books that re-educate me, that challenge my assumptionsThis book is a combination of all four, but most importantly covers the fourth area; I had not thought terribly much about the human impact of the war on terror on an everyday Pakistani family, but this book challenged me and made me think again about my preconceptions.
The Thing Around Your Neck

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I didn't enjoy this collection of short stories as much as I had hoped. I love tales from Africa, especially Nigeria, which is a country so full of literary possibilities that it's hard to know where to start. However, I found a lot of Adichie's stories to be too choked. They suffer from a writing style that I think is unnecessarily heavy; at times the writing, and the structure of the story, get in the way of the tale. The worst example is what could otherwise have been a very dramatic and moving tale of a woman trying to escape the country, and who whilst queueing for the embassy recalls the events of the last few days. It didn't work as well as it should have done. A much better story, told more linearly and with a freshness not present in much of the rest, is the opening tale of a young man arrested on suspicion of being part of a gang. The prose is so much more direct and powerful, and the political commentary more oblique. The story that concerns a writers' group in South Africa is too clearly political, the characters simply one-dimension puppets made to regurgitate political speeches, and reading their diatribes one after another is simply exhausting.
Arguably

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Christopher Hitchens concludes his memoir, 'Hitch-22', by noting of his shift in ideology that finally he had learnt to think for himself. A longtime erstwhile Communist he nonetheless had no time for the totalitarian regimes that fly the Communist flag; he did, however, enormously respect Karl Marx, who on top of everything else was also a fine journalist.In 'Arguably' Hitchens proves inarguably to have been one of the greatest journalists and writers that the modern world has produced. Each and every one of these articles is worth the time it takes to read them. Another reviewer has complained of the breadth and depth of Hitchens's quotations, that to read one book review one must first have read half of the last century's literature, but this raises two points: why would one not want to have read the best that civilisation has produced? and; does it really get in the way when Hitchens quote Auden or Orwell to make his point clearer? To the first question, I would say that answering it is getting expensive: I kept a notepad and pen at my side as I read, noting down useful new items of vocabulary (unctuous, synecdoche, esurient) and also the names of the writers he mentions. I did the same with 'Hitch-22' and it has come close to bankrupting me, but I did it happily and feel enriched. I only wish I could get a closer look at the books on his bookshelves, sadly soft-focussed on the cover of this beautiful volume.As for the second question; well, for the next six months of my still nascent writing career I imagine I will do everything I can to emulate - nay, copy - Hitchens's writing style, trying along the way to draw together a million different influences and facts and factoids to make a more compelling narrative. Well, one has to start from somewhere, and at least I already sign my name 'Christopher'.
The Death of Bunny Munro: A Novel

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How does one read a book like 'The Death of Bunny Munro'? Does one take it at face value, and decry its constant misogyny, its lack of any moral compass, and its unlikable protagonist? Or does one do what one might have done with Amis's 'Money' and enjoy the literary ride, or with Ellis's 'American Psycho' treat the book as satire, a commentary of consumerism culture where here sex and women are items to be consumed, though at the price of one's soul?I was given this book as a Christmas present and it took me all year to bring myself to read it. I'm not a fan generally of non-writer writers; I didn't think much of Ethan Hawke's efforts, and would have preferred him to stick with the acting; I don't even like Nick Cave's music, so I was tempted to write this one off from the very start. It was only the dim and distant feeling of otherwise disappointing the gift-giver if I gave up that kept me going at the start, and when I looked beyond the purplish prose I managed to find the spirit to run on through to the end. I'm glad I did - 'Bunny Munro' was a surprisingly good read, and if nothing else will make me reconsider Nick Cave, both as a writer and as a singer. Perhaps, if it didn't sound so contrived and conceited, it would be better to call him a wordsmith and be done with it.
Bel Canto

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I'm not sure, honestly I'm not. I was recommended this book by a friend - a female friend, it should be pointed out - who said that it was one of the best books she'd ever read and that I would love it. I enjoyed it, but love? No, sadly not. I wonder though - is this an example of the male/female divide in fiction? The writing in this book, the way that the author would suspend the action to tell you the intricate backstory of the person involved, and then the backstory of another person obliquely involved, before perhaps - only perhaps - returning to the action; well, is it a writing style that is more enjoyed by women than by men?I lay myself open to claims of sexism here, but I can't think of another book by a male writer that was so tentative and willing to let the plot take such a back seat. That's not to say that sometimes the tangents explored were not worth exploring, but just that, trimmed of the digressions, the story would not run to more than about 40 pages.There were some great scenes; the part where the French hostage took on the role of chef and demanded access to the knives was well done; but otherwise the characters and their empty or unconvincing. That opera should have such a great effect on the hostage takers - well, I'm not sure about that as much as anything else.And one other little point: the country in which all of this takes place is never mentioned directly, only by the slightly clumsy reference to 'the host nation' or 'the host country'. Would it be so ridiculous to come out and say it? I noticed that the James Bond movies lately have been almost as bad; in Casino Royale the bomber seeks refuge in a made-up African country's consulate, though in Quantum of Solace there seems to be no problem whatsoever in calling Bolivia Bolivia, and filling the cast with shady and corrupt politicians and generals. So why not here?
Hitch-22: A Memoir

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Christopher Hitchens's memoirs, like his other writings, is remarkably satisfying in its breadth of content and its approach to reporting on a life well and truly lived. In fact, Hitchens lived so much that I was almost depressed by reading of his adventures, especially considering that he did so much so young, and what do I have to say for myself?However, one should know before reading this volume that these are Hitchens's memoirs, not an autobiography of such. Although he discusses his relationship with his parents at length, and the late-in-life revelation of his Jewish ancestry, he manages to avoid for the most part mentioning either of his wives (or at least how his marriage came to have a sequel) or his relationship with his brother. There is still much work available for any would-be biographer, though the prose here is so faultless that the task should not be taken on lightly.In all, a magnificent work, and I feel truly better for having read it.
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

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Shame about the cover - such an ugly affair, almost as if it obeys one of the so-called laws of typography, that one should not use more than three fonts on a single page. Anyway, the book itself is a fascinating journey through the history of typography, well illustrated (and this is crucial for a book about type!), and just long enough that it doesn't get boring.
Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

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Samuel Johnson's fine book rather reminded me of Voltaire's 'Candide', except there isn't quite as much travelling, and the variety of philosophical ideas expounded upon is much greater. The book was remarkably readable for one quite so old, and as an English Teacher I found it fascinating to see how usage has changed in the intervening period; we use commas differently, and we no longer write musick or rustick.Johnson is also eminently quotable. This piece really stuck in my mind: "All skill ought to be exerted for universal good; every man has owed much to others, and ought to repay the kindness he has received." For me, this is the perfect way of looking at the Internet as a whole, and explains the logic behind all those wonderful writers scribbling away and posting their thoughts online for the world to see.
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